The Reality of Television

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February 7, 2010 by Rhi

Not being able to sleep at night is giving me plenty of time to catch up with the trashy television which I find so entertaining, but which makes my Mr Bint whinge in the manner of a small boy at a Princess Party. It’s just Not His Thing. I, on the other hand, adore all sorts of weird and wonderful programmes from Road Wars, to Hollyoaks. It’s good to see how other people live their lives, even if it is though the distorting lens of a television camera.

Once upon a time I harboured dreams of a career in television. Occasionally, I still do. The medium has a special hold over me, and the whole social history aspect of progammes of yesteryear still makes me think that it’s an important tool in shaping the fortunes of the audience, and expanding the horizons of those who plan their lives around episodes of their favourite soaps, and Event Television like The X-Factor.

Before Christmas, I was invited to a party. Being so close to London now, I was really looking forward to being able to visit for the weekend on not much cash. Always a bonus for an unemployed layabout like me. A very close friend of mine has managed to make her way into the fickle world of TV production, and the evening promised to be a chance to hang out with the sort of person I always thought I’d be. Plus a much needed chance to catch up with a very good friend who I hadn’t seen in far too long.

The reality was something quite different. The fact was, these people worked in the shows which were well outside my radar. At the risk of sounding like a Grauniad yoghurt knitter, they’re the kind of shows which give television a bad name amongst the intellectuals of the country. The talk very quickly turned to reality television – and when I attempted to back out of a conversation on the X Factor by explaining that I hadn’t actually watched any of it, it was as though I had announced I thought that the BNP had a viable manifesto. I think it cooked my goose for the rest of the evening. I ended up getting stupidly drunk and making a tit of myself – nothing new there. The worst thing was that some of them genuinely felt they had a superiority over those of us who didn’t work in the industry. And others seemed genuinely unaware of the role they were playing in making fun of people who were probably more in need of help and support.  An example:

Another friend of mine from university who visited, has been thinking of becoming a teacher. In order to gain experience, he has been working as a Special Needs teaching assistant, working exclusively with a little boy with severe behavioural problems. He was explaining how, in the short time he’d been there, the boy had seen a marked improvement in his work, in his application to lesson, and to his behaviour in general. This angry little boy had learnt to laugh and have fun whilst learning, thanks to the one to one care C had been able to give him. Whilst telling us this, the pride in this achievement was evident in C’s voice. And his disappointment when he had to leave the role due to the poor pay he was offered for the permanent post (not enough to cover his basic living expenses plus travel) , couple with the news that the boy has relapsed into his own way, made for heartbreaking listening. His passion for his role was infectious, and we all wished him well in finding another role soon.

This was followed by a blonde girl sympathising, as her contract had just come to an end. She’d been working on an show looking at obesity. I tried to make conversation about it, what had she discovered about working with the families? Did she have any ideas about the media coverage of the “Obesity Crisis” which is supposedly threatening the next generation? She replied with a tale of how they did this really funny shoot with the mother of one of the families, where they filmed her chasing a packet of crisps along the street, which the production team were holding just out of her reach. Apparently, it was hilarious watching Fatty Bumbum gasping for breath, arms outstretched reaching for a 50g bag of Prawn Cocktail.

How insightful. It’s all very well thinking you’re producing a hard hitting programme about a current issue, unless you’re actually going to address these issues in an intelligent way, there’s very little point in doing it. It might make you feel good, like you’re a cutting edge documentary maker. But making fat people run for crisps is tantamount to laughing at someone falling over whilst running for the bus. You might as well have come up with the concept of Total Wipeout, for all you’re contributing to society.

And now this evening, I’ve watched a programme on BBC3 (that bastion of Yoof entertainment and information) regarding the issue of the drink/drug/sex culture in Magaluf. It had good intentions, with three guinea pigs being tested at the start and end of their holiday, in order to test the effects of a week of boozing on their bodies. Plus attempts to uncover the issues surrouding violence, crime, and a drug which was widely used on the island as a method of clearing up sexually transmitted diseases (but which was, in fact, only effective against chlamydia).

The end result, however, was a clips show of people drinking themselves to severe injury. And even then they weren’t particularly helpful examples. Of the two most serious cases, one was a boy who woke up drunk in a bar toilet unable to move his legs, and the second was the tragic case of a man who was beaten to death. However, in the case of the former, it was unclear what was the cause of his paralysis (in fact the doctors said it was definately not the alcohol he consumed that night), and the latter was a 44-year-old father on a weekend away. Not only that, the murder case was given only a passing mention, in a “this also happened” way. It could have been that legal restrictions prevented further exploration of the case, but it is far more likely that the victim did not fit the demographic of the programme, and so it was unnecessary to trouble us with him further.

Just as heartbreaking was the inclusion of a girl who had come to Magaluf on holiday, and stayed on for three months. She stated to the presenter that, in her opinion “everyone who comes to Magaluf is running away from something”. When pressed, she admitted for her it was relationships, but she didn’t want to talk about it. The candid way in which she admitted that she was an alcoholic since coming to the island, and was unable to get past one in the afternoon without a drink lest she get the shakes, cried out for a more indepth discussion. Her last appearance on the show was the night before she was due to fly home, and a fight with her flatmates had left her homeless. The camera followed her round the bars and clubs as she kissed man after man, in an attempt to get someone to take her home so she would have a bed for the night. Meanwhile, the producers in their wisdom decided that the bigger morality tale would be the results of their medical tests on the guinea pigs. Who, it transpired, were in the rudest of health. Well, almost… one boy had badly bruised his hand playing a fairground game whilst drunk (he missed the punchbag), and the other girl had a reduced lung capacity. Which seemed a strange reaction, until it was pointed out that she was asthmatic, and smoking was not yet banned in Magaluf pubs and clubs.  So the REAL dangers, according to the cold hard facts, are smoking if you’re asthmatic, and playing games whilst drunk. I’m sure that’ll have the girls and boys eshewing their Bacardi Breezers and Stella Artois come Saturday night.

There is a whole industry of programmes geared towards creating programming for the youth market, and with a few exceptions, they’re doing nothing to address the issues facing young people today in a meaningful fashion. BBC3 has an election-based show, which appears to be being presented by the most annoying man on television, with a patronising manner, and a whiff of the undead about him. Part of the problem is that those who are making the shows are so caught up in the hedonism that it creates, that they are unable to see what is under their own noses.

I have no issue with reality television, nor do I think shows that promote celebrity culture are a bad thing. I am not a television snob (except when it comes to Michael McIntyre). My friends in television are all lovely people, producing shows with big ratings that make people’s weekends brighter, and give them a reason to sit down with their families over a weekend.  But these pseudo-documentary programmes are dangerous. The presenter of the Magaluf show did all the right stuff – meaningful talking to camera, posing interesting questions. But he didn’t TELL us anything that wasn’t already obvious. Like the A-Level essay that merely repeats the class teaching, with no insight or attempt at comprehension, it was disappointing.  Giving commissions to some of the current generation of programme makers is like giving a 16 year old a 10-inch cock. He KNOWS it’s fantastic, and he wants to make the most of it. But in reality, he hasn’t got a clue what to do with it. And the problem probably comes from out of touch management who have little or no programme making experience, and even less understanding of the issues facing young people today. They wouldn’t know a good show from a bad one even if they came colour coded.

Television has often charted the history of the people who watch it, and in these reality obsessed times, this is truer than ever. It’s just a shame that the mirror it holds up shows so much of the problem, but those holding the mirror are unable to properly discuss what they see.


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